Improv-ing Our Way of Communicating Science

13 Sep

If you’d stumbled into the right room of the theater building this spring, you might have been startled to see sixteen Smith faculty and staff staring fixedly at the floor, walking random circles around each another, in total silence, as if they’d gone mad.

You might have been more startled still to hear that those faculty were at that very moment practicing pioneering new methods to communicate scholarly and scientific work to the public.

The group, including myself, was taking part in a program brought to Smith by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, run out of Stony Brook University.  Founded by famed actor Alan Alda of M*A*S*H, the center brings workshops to academic institutions around the country.

Before founding the center, Alda had long taken an interest in science communication, hosting the Scientific American Frontiers program about popular science from 1993 to 2005.  In working with scientists for the show, he realized that many of them had no idea how to effectively talk to journalists, much less the public.

Scholars seldom have trained to reach broad audiences.  Normally, they work either alone or with other specialists, reporting their work to audiences of highly-trained peers and relying on technical jargon and complex detail to get their points across.

The theater exercises Alda had learned as a budding actor, he realized, could prove as formative and life-changing to scholars as to theater professionals.   Rooted in improvisation and collaboration, the exercises help teach participants how to create human connection.

With study after study showing that information alone can’t change minds, building that interpersonal rapport may prove as crucial to sharing knowledge as providing the facts.

“If what you’re worried about is how do I look, how do I sound, will I remember the hard words, am I saying this in exactly the right way, then you’re not really communicating.  You’re in your own head,” Alda has said, about what he hopes the techniques will change.

That’s how Smith faculty found ourselves walking around the room, first staring at the floor, then switching to looking each other in the eye, then saying our names as we looked at each other.

The exercise calls attention to the power of body language, too often ignored by scholars when reaching out to the public.  Focusing on how one’s body takes up space in a room can offer novel insights, especially from the vantage point of a career based on books, calculations or scientific instruments.

The workshop also emphasized the power of story to get information across to others.  Scholars’ personal experiences and memories, when shared, can humanize research, pointed out workshop leaders Radha and Elizabeth.

Alongside the theater exercises, the workshop participants created and presented our own short narratives of how we got into our areas of research, with some striking results.

Suzanne Gottschang, a medical anthropologist, described how as a Masters’ degree student in public health, she took a class on infant feeding.  While in the course, she happened to have four friends become pregnant at the same time.

In the middle of the night, one of those friends called her, in tears.  Within days, a second friend called, weeping about the same problem.  Both friends had given birth successfully but were struggling to breast-feed their new babies, who wouldn’t accept the breast no matter what they tried.

Both women felt like failures, like terrible mothers, like something was wrong with them.

“To women in the U.S., breastfeeding is presented as something natural and innate,” Gottschang said. But in her course, “we were learning that it’s learned behavior.  Both the mother and the baby have to learn.”

Her friends’ struggle combined with what she was learning in class, Gottschang said, kicked off thirty years of following research.  Now, she studies the commercializing of infant feeding in China.  Despite a huge campaign to encourage women to breastfeed, Chinese breastfeeding rates have been declining.  The contradictions in expectations that women experience during early motherhood, Gottschang explained, likely contribute to the decline, but they’re seldom talked about.

Stories like Gottschang’s create emotional connection, quickly making clear why her research matters – a far cry from simply reporting breastfeeding rates around the world.

Gottschang said the workshop offered her a welcome opportunity to think about reaching audiences in different ways.

“Looking for those connections, finding those, I think that was really profound, both on an individual level and with a larger audience,” she said.

The Alda techniques are likely to enter teaching practice across Smith campus.  For instance, I’ve used the improvisation and theater exercises with AEMES students, and will also be using a variety of the improv and storytelling techniques this year in ENV 311, an environmental communication class.

Several faculty have told me they plan to do the same, including Zhang-Gottschang and astronomy professor James Lowenthal, who helped bring the Alda program to Smith after attending a previous workshop.

From when I was a kid until I went to college, I performed yearly in a summer theater.  There, I remember the shyest young man I ever met, a nine-year-old whom I thought could never manage to overcome his fears to perform onstage.  He could barely look up from his feet.

Over our years at the theater, my friend became the most outgoing, vivacious, gracious person I can imagine.  I can’t prove the theater’s training created the change, but I’m convinced that’s what brought him out of his shell.

If the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science can reproduce even a fragment of that magic, lighting an extroverted spark within the famously reclusive academic disciplines, it’s worth looking like a madwoman for the day.

Attendees at the May workshop included Alexander Barron, Nathanael Fortune, Katherine Halvorsen, Suzanne Gottschang, Valerie Joseph, David Bickar, Greg White, Susan Sayre, Virginia Hayssen, Joanne Benkley, Michael Barresi, Patricia Mangan, Molly Falsetti-Yu, Jessica Bacal, and Amy Rhodes, and Naila Moreira.

 

-Naila Moreira is a nature and science writer and poet.  She teaches in the Environmental Science & Policy Program and English department, as well as in the Jacobson Center.  She likes birdwatching and ultimate frisbee, and has a fondness for offbeat critters like salamanders, katydids, bats and snakes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: